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Muslims Hope to Capitalize on Criticism

Though last week featured a contentious public debate about the role of Muslims in American society, some advocates for that community believe their critics are creating an opportunity for Muslims to expand their political clout.

On Monday, as a leading Republican lawmaker prepared to hold a second round of hearings on radicalization in the American-Muslim community, two Republican presidential candidates at a presidential debate professed discomfort with the idea of hiring Muslims for government posts.

"Those anti-Muslim comments received the loudest applause line during the debate," said Farhana Khera, president of a group called Muslim Advocates.

But by Friday, Khera said, she had witnessed an outpouring of support from Netroots Nation, a premier liberal conference on political activism, giving her hope that the anti-Muslim rhetoric might actually boost the community's clout. The Netroots conference included a panel titled "The Politics of Hate and the Rise of Anti-Muslim Bigotry"; attendees discussed "a spike in hateful and harassing behavior towards Muslims."

As Khera addressed the Netroots audience, a group of Muslim women protested the RightOnline conservative conference a few blocks away. They said a man with a video camera had followed them the night before, asking them why they had their heads covered in America. The event was well-covered on liberal blogs.

Some in Congress are also rising to defend Muslims.

Last month, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a resolution calling on the federal government to counter anti-Muslim sentiment. The measure has 28 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) is holding a series of hearings on radicalization of American Muslims; in response, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in March led what he called the first-ever hearings on the civil rights of American Muslims.

Additionally, a leading interfaith advocacy group came to the Muslim community's side after the Republican presidential debate to rebuke candidates Herman Cain and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). When asked during the debate to clarify an earlier comment that he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his administration, Cain said, "I was thinking about the ones that are trying to kill us."

Gingrich followed up with his own concerns.

"I just want to go out on a limb here. I am in favor of saying to people, 'If you're not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period.' We did this in dealing with the Nazis," he said.

C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, which has 185,000 members representing 75 faiths, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama and the Republican candidates present at the debate criticizing those remarks.

"If the most recent debate is any indication, this kind of rhetoric is not going away," Gaddy wrote. "But I urge you to do your part to shift the debate and defend, rather than attack the American Muslim community."

Gaddy said in an interview that he and other faith leaders are concerned Islam could become a wedge issue in the presidential campaign.

"People who understand the role of religion in American politics can't help but be concerned about this," he said.

Support from groups such as Interfaith Alliance is especially important for American Muslims because their community is so small. Fewer than 2 percent of Americans are Muslim.

"We're a small community by population and many of our institutions are fairly young. It'll be a little while before we are really able to move the political needle," said Corey Saylor, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Saylor said support from outside groups "is easily one of the most welcomed things in this whole scenario. ... You've seen energy in communities that we don't usually see."

But the challenge Muslim activists face is that support has come mainly from liberals, while anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be growing among conservatives.

In a recent CNN poll, 26 percent of Americans said they hold unfavorable views of American Muslims.

"I'm optimistic but not in the short term. It's going to be very bad going into 2012 because that's where the public is. People are able to say hateful things because people do feel concern or suspicion of Muslims," said Suhail Khan, a prominent Muslim conservative and the leader of the Conservative Inclusion Coalition.

Khan criticized Muslim advocacy groups for not working more with conservative leaders, who he said must lead the charge against anti-Muslim remarks in order for public sentiments to change.

"President [George W.] Bush, for all his faults, at the very least was going to mosques during the campaign and repeatedly sending out the message that our war is not with Islam," Khan said. "Now that that voice is not there, that's why you're seeing the mushrooming and the anger from the community. When Obama says the same thing, that has no effect."

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has been careful to balance courting the Muslim vote with distancing himself from conservatives' assertions that he is secretly Muslim.

During the 2008 campaign, it was retired Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican, who unequivocally condemned those allegations. Powell defended Obama's Christianity and asserted, "What if he is [Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America."

Muslim Advocates' Khera admitted that her group has not yet reached out to any of the Republican presidential candidates. But she said the group has been meeting privately with Republican leaders to urge them to speak up.

"They share our concern about the ugliness of the rhetoric," she said.

Their voices, along with statements of support for Muslims already made by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), will be more influential than efforts by Democrats in determining how Muslims are discussed this campaign cycle, Khan said.

At last week's debate, Romney's response to the Muslim question set him apart from Cain and Gingrich.

"I think we recognize that people of all faiths are welcome in this country," Romney said. "Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance."

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